Birds, like all animals, are integral to a healthy ecosystem. It’s lots of fun to watch their antics as they chirp and flutter about in your yard, but they’re so much more than just window dressing in the landscape. Birds control insect populations, spread pollen, and assist with the lifecycles of fruit-bearing plants. In the grand scheme of things, we need them more than they need us—but in the wintertime, what we do for our local birds matters a lot.
While putting out a bird feeder is a great first step, there’s so much more that we can do to help winter birds survive the harshest conditions of the year. Just like us, birds need more than food alone; they need a habitat, complete with fresh water and somewhere to rest. In my view, a sustainable landscape should be harmonized with the needs of local wildlife. I truly believe that anyone can create a complete ecosystem in their yard with a few clever solutions and the right plants—yes, I mean you!
If you’re ready to become a local hero to your neighbourhood birds, here’s how to start.
Birdie Basics: Food, Water, and Shelter
Birds, like all living things, really need three main things; something to eat, something to drink, and somewhere to live. In the winter landscape, all three of these things become dangerously scarce—the plants are dead or dormant, many ponds and streams are frozen, and most of the trees have lost their leaves. That means our winter birds are forced to compete for the limited resources they can find. Can you imagine wandering down the highways of Wellington County on foot, in the dead of winter, with nowhere to go and no food or drink in sight? It’s a heartbreaking thought, but such is life for thousands of our birds for a quarter of the year.
Now that we’ve got some perspective on how tough it is for the average winter bird to survive in Guelph, giving them a helping hand is a cakewalk in comparison. Here’s what you need to create the ultimate bird-friendly backyard.
Food: Birdseed is not a one-size-fits-all product. Different birds require different diets to get the energy they need. Suet, for example, is made from calorie-dense beef fat, which ground-feeding birds love. Black oil sunflower seed, on the other hand, is the preferred fat source for many perching birds. If you have a strong preference for one kind of bird, you can opt for a single feeder. However, I prefer having several different feeders to attract more bird diversity to my yard. Here are the different types you’ll find at our nursery:
- Tube feeders: These simple feeders are ideal for birds like cardinals, chickadees, grosbeaks, finches, and titmice. The design keeps the food dry to prevent spoilage.
- Hopper feeders: A sturdy, “house”-shaped feeder that dispenses lots of food at once, often on two sides. This feeder style attracts the same mix of birds that frequent your tube feeders.
- Suet feeders: These cage-like feeders hold a block of suet in place for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees.
- Finch feeders: Not surprisingly, these feeders are specially designed for finches. The little guys love to eat nyjer seed from these feeders!
- Peanut feeders: Jays, woodpeckers, and nuthatches adore peanuts. These feeders are usually constructed from coarse mesh, so birds can easily pluck them out.
Before you run out to stock up on food and feeders, keep in mind that winter is peak season for birders to buy up a big supply of food for the year. To avoid disappointment, you may want to call our store in advance to check stock levels before making the trip down.
Water: In the winter, it’s arguably harder for birds to find water than food. The best way to provide year-round water for birds and other wildlife is to install a running water feature, like a pond with a waterfall. We install lots of these every year, and not only do they make incredible focal features for your yard, but they also instantly transform a garden into a complete habitat. Your waterfall will have huge benefits for all the creatures that call your yard home—yourself included!
If a water feature isn’t in the budget just yet, you can also try out a heated birdbath or birdbath de-icer to offer water to your backyard birds. Heated birdbaths and birdbath de-icers help to prevent your backyard water sources from freezing over, so your neighbourhood birds can stop for a sip. However, in subzero temperatures, it’s very dangerous for birds to get damp feet or feathers. When the mercury drops, keep a metal grate over the birdbath so the birds can drink without getting wet.
Shelter: While I’m a believer that trees are the best birdhouses, pre-fab birdhouses are still useful for helping out your flighted friends in a pinch. If you buy a birdhouse that you want birds to use, don’t opt for a decorative feeder with bright colours or glossy finishes. These unnatural shades and materials are flashy enough to attract the eye of predators, and birds are smart enough to know it. Instead, opt for feeders made from natural wood and place them somewhere with some privacy and wind cover. Make sure to leave out nesting materials like dog hair, dryer lint, bits of rags, and yarn near the birdhouse rather than inside it—make them think they “found” it!
Speaking of places birds don’t want to be, nothing crashes a “flock” party like sharp canines and claws. As much as possible, keep feeders, birdbaths, and houses out of the sightline of roaming cats and away from areas that get heavy traffic from squirrels and dogs.
Bird-Friendly Landscape Plants
Planting shrubs and trees in your landscape is a win-win for you and the local birds. You get a lush, diverse yard that’s loaded with four-season interest, and the birds get an ample supply of naturally-occurring food and shelter. What could be better?
Bear in mind that birds aren’t stupid—they know what winter is, and many species spend months preparing for it. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to plant a variety of shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter sources at different times throughout the year.
Some excellent deciduous shrubs and trees that offer shelter and food sources for birds include:
- Pagoda Dogwood
- Winterberry Holly
- Staghorn Sumac
- Red Osier Dogwood
- Red-berried Elder
- Paper Birch
- Red Maple
- Sugar Maple
- White Oak
- White Oak
Evergreens are invaluable for providing both shelter and a source of food for many birds. Consider planting evergreen trees and shrubs like:
- White Spruce
- Eastern White Pine
- Eastern White Cedar
- Jack Pine
- White Pine
Ornamental grasses are very underrated landscape plants that serve many important functions in the landscape. These grasses are also habitats and food sources for birds, while also helping to prevent soil erosion. They’re also inexpensive, low-maintenance, and help to visually tie all the elements of the landscape together. Start with these native species:
- Little Bluestem
- Big Bluestem
- Indian Grass
- Prairie Dropseed
- Bottlebrush Grass
The more you do to make your yard attractive to birds, the more frequent the visits will become. Pretty soon, you’ll have regular visitors flying in as your property becomes a reliable source of life-saving food, water, and shelter. It’s true what they say—not all heroes wear capes!